The Last Post Poem Analysis Essays

"Last Post" is a poem written by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 2009. It was commissioned by the BBC to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, two of the last three surviving British veterans from the First World War, and was first broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme Today on 30 July 2009, the date of Allingham's funeral.

The poem, named after the "Last Post" (the bugle call used at British ceremonies remembering those killed in war), makes explicit references to Wilfred Owen's poem from the First World War Dulce et Decorum Est. It imagines what would happen if time ran backwards and those killed in the war came back to life; their lives would still be full of possibilities and filled with "love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food."[1] The poem was generally well received, with one commentator saying that it was "simply a damn good poem with rich imagery, cinematic movement and poignant ending."[2] Another said that it was "moving reversal of history" and a "fine poem".[1] Duffy herself was quoted as saying that she wanted to honour the tradition of poets who were soldiers.

Commission[edit]

Carol Ann Duffy was appointed as Poet Laureate in May 2009, the first woman to be appointed to the post.[3] She was asked by the BBC Radio 4 programme Today to write a poem to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. The poem was read by Duffy on Today on 30 July 2009, the day of Allingham's funeral.[4] Allingham, who served with the Royal Naval Air Service before becoming a founder member of the Royal Air Force, died on 18 July 2009 at the age of 113;[5] Patch, the last surviving man to have fought in the trenches in the war, died on 25 July 2009 at the age of 111.[6] Their deaths left Claude Choules, who served in the Royal Navy during the war and who lived in Australia until his death in 2011, as the last surviving British veteran.[7]

Duffy said that she felt that she should "honour that great tradition of poets who were also soldiers", describing the poem as "an attempt at healing and being at one with the world", and "a tribute and blessing, even an apology, on behalf of poetry and all poets."[8] She added that she "had been thinking about Afghanistan and trying to enthuse new war poetry among contemporary poets."[8] The poem was broadcast one week after Duffy published a selection of poems she had commissioned from poets such as Sean O'Brien, Paul Muldoon and Daljit Nagra about the ongoing war in Afghanistan.[1]

Poem[edit]

The poem takes its title from the bugle call used at British ceremonies remembering those killed in war, the "Last Post". It begins with two lines from the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by the First World War poet and soldier Wilfred Owen:[4][9]

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

The title of Owen's poem is part of a line from the Roman poet Horace – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"). The phrase was inscribed over the chapel door at Sandhurst, the British military academy, in 1913.[10] The phrase is again referenced when Duffy writes "Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori." The writer Will Heaven said that, whilst the poem denies that death in war is "sweet and proper" (dulce et decorum), it does not deny that the soldiers died for their country (pro patria mori).[11]

The heart of the poem depicts events "if poetry could tell it backwards" – soldiers who died in the war coming back to life, "lines and lines of British boys rewind / back to their trenches". The poem imagines "all those thousands dead / are shaking dried mud from their hair / and queuing up for home". Duffy pictures what would have happened to them if they had not died:

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

before adding, "You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile".[4]Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times, said that the poet Duffy refers to in the poem could be Owen, but could also be John McCrae, Isaac Rosenberg, or Charles Hamilton Sorley, or one of a number of other poets from the war. Wagner also noted that "Harry Patch and Henry Allingham escaped death, but never the effect of that awful war."[1]

Reaction[edit]

The poem received a generally favourable critical reaction. Wagner called it a "moving reversal of history", a "fine poem", and "the latest in a noble line of work [about the First World War] that aspires to a kind of salvation."[1] Heaven said that it was a "poignant and beautiful tribute" to Allingham.[11] It has been called "sombre yet supremely uplifting".[8] The poem was also noticed in the United States. Jenna Krajeski, a writer for The New Yorker, described it as "another strong at-bat", and said that the poem highlighted "the power, but also the shortcomings, of poetry" when writing about an "imaginary, impossible event" and also writing about writing about it.[12] The American poet John Lundberg said that the poem was a "surprising success", adding that not only was it "accessible" and "a fitting tribute to those who served in World War I," but also "simply a damn good poem with rich imagery, cinematic movement and poignant ending."[2] However, Christopher Howse, a writer for the Daily Telegraph, took a different view of the poem's merits, saying (under the title "Carol Ann Duffy falls short of Henry Allingham") that Duffy's verse form was "open, to the point of invisibility".[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Carol Anne Duffy is a good poet, and the Laureateship seems to have given her a new lease of poetic life. She has just released a new poem, marking the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch; it has a strong central idea – a war film played backwards:

Last Post Carol Ann Duffy

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud . . .
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

(Copied from the Times website, but all the papers seem to have it, so I’m assuming there’s no copyright problem.)
I like the way the soldier begins as an anonymous victim, and gradually gathers life and identity, and I like the lines:

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible

‘You lean’ – shows us  a  casual unmilitary posture, the man watching the world go peacefully by, and seeing not only the several million lives saved, but the several million versions of his own life that are still possible, not chopped off by war.

The ending is good, too – about the aspirations of poetry (to tell the truth, and to describe a better world) and its limitations – isn’t there  an implicit ‘but it can’t’ at the end of the poem?
I’ve got a couple of reservations, though – mostly about the use of Wilfred Owen. The first two lines, of course, are taken from Dulce et Decorum Est, and I can’t help feeling they’d have been better in italics, or indented as an epigraph. There seems a confusion between this death by gas and the death by shrapnel two lines later.  For my own taste, too, the message-hammering line:

Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.

could also have been cut without loss.

But the time reversal is very effectively handled, even though Kurt Vonnegut got there first, in the section of Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim sees the Second World War played backwards:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

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This entry was written by George Simmers and posted on July 31, 2009 at 5:08 am and filed under Poetry. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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